Tuesday 22 May 2018

Laying it Bare: Irish YouTube star Melanie Murphy on everything from her bisexuality to her acne

Forget filters and humble bragging, in her searingly honest and self-effacing posts, Dublin YouTube star Melanie Murphy shares everything from her acne-scarred skin to her bisexuality. Here, in an extract from her new book, she gives real insight into the mind of a twenty-something in Ireland today

Internet sensation: Melanie Murphy. Photo: Emily Quinn
Internet sensation: Melanie Murphy. Photo: Emily Quinn

In 2014, Melanie Murphy became an internet sensation when she posted a video about her acne. The honest account, accompanied by unfiltered footage of her inflamed skin, struck a chord - leading to more than 18 million views from across the globe.

A qualified teacher from Skerries, Co Dublin, Melanie has since turned vlogging into a full-time career and has more then 500,000 subscribers to her YouTube channel. As well as posts about lifestyle and skincare, she has addressed some of the deeper issues which have affected her, including bullying, disordered eating and depression. After coming out as bisexual, Melanie has also championed opening a broad conversation about sex and sexuality in modern-day Ireland.

In her debut book, Fully Functioning Human (Almost): Living in and Online/Offline World, the 28-year-old gives her experience and advice on a wide range of subjects - from anxiety and confidence to consent.

Throughout the book she also shares deeply personal stories - such as an account of miscarrying an unexpected pregnancy at age 19 - with remarkable honesty and openness.

The book gives a genuine insight into the mind of a millennial and into both the challenges, and many positives, that come with living in the internet age.

Sexuality

Fully Functioning Human (Almost) by Melanie Murphy, published by Hachette Books
Fully Functioning Human (Almost) by Melanie Murphy, published by Hachette Books

From a very young age I knew that I liked girls in the same way that I liked boys, and for that blissful moment in time I got to live that reality without questioning it. But, of course, my bliss was cut short by social norms and as I got older, I had no idea how to identify myself for a very, very long time. I went on to frequently develop crushes on boys and girls; women and men; strangers and singers; teachers and movie stars.

I've got a very vivid imagination, see, and I'm very driven by romance and sex. Now, as a twenty-something, I can admit that, and I'm comfortable with that fact, but as a young teen it was this awful, dirty secret I kept locked away - something I'd only show to my bestest friends.

Like 'Alice'. She knew all too well my unquenchable thirst, my unusual curiosity about all things sex and love. At first we'd just play really elaborate games with our Barbie dolls, and the 'storylines' always revolved around relationships and affairs and weddings and heartbreak. We'd stick on epic movie soundtracks during sleepovers and we'd cry together just talking about love stories. This girl is on my level! She gets it!

And after a couple of years of friendship I finally opened up to her about my sexy daydreams and about how sometimes I'd think about people or scenarios and put my hand in my knickers before bed. She did something then that ultimately changed my life, my focus and my expectations forever, completely stripping the last of my innocence. She introduced me to pornography.

Cyberbullying

My self-esteem has absolutely been squashed to dust by cyberbullying. I mean, yeah, I've rebuilt it, but, man, it would've been a bit bloody lovely to have saved that precious time. Bullies have zoned in on my skin problems, my sexuality, my weight, my personality quirks, my fashion sense (well, to be fair, I'll give them that one), my accent and way of speaking - basically everything about me. Different bullies and trolls have picked me apart, little by little, at different times and for different reasons.

When I was at my lowest while getting trolled a couple of years back, several things helped me to pull up barriers and materialise a mithril-like mental armour. (Mithril is a fictional metal from one of my favourite book series ever, The Lord of the Rings. It's described as resembling silver but being stronger and lighter than steel, and I like to pretend I have this wrapped around my mind.)

Binge eating

One evening in 2012 while at home in my pyjamas, after watching an episode of Game of Thrones, I had my first ten thousand calorie (plus) food binge. I sat on my bedroom floor (door shut) and emptied two plastic bags full of my chosen 'binge foods' into my lap. My family and then-boyfriend called in to me a few times telling me to hurry up (they were waiting for me to come back in to play the next episode) but I begged for five minutes more - over and over again, for about an hour. I blamed 'period cramps'.

Sour cream and onion Pringles, peanut M&Ms and jammy custard-filled pastries (some of the foods I'd most commonly binge on) surrounded me, and I got to work. Cramming in as much as possible - barely even chewing or enjoying the flavours and textures - I went into autopilot mode.

Like a robot, my hands scooped up food and crammed it into my mouth, while I texted or flicked through Facebook. This was after dinner, mind - Dad had cooked us a huge pot of stew, and it was delicious as always, but my brain was screaming at me to eat as much dense, garbage food as possible.

It craved the feeling of being stuffed to the gills, having experienced the diet rollercoaster of weight gain, then weight loss, then maintenance, then orthorexia. My animal brain was sending out the signal: Just eat. Eat everything. Right now. And the part of my brain that I control obeyed. Because this overpowering urge, to feel that 'good' stuffed feeling, overrode everything.

I knew and felt to be true about how I wanted to treat my body. I'd clearly become accustomed to finding some form of pleasure in pain, to the point that I was now weakly and willingly eating more food than my body could physically take in. It was so painful, that first big binge. I felt disgusting, despicable, worthless, and I cried into the blanket at the edge of my bed. I propped my head against it - it was thumping - and I thought, What's wrong with me? I roared F*** and threw things at my bedroom walls, bawling over what I'd just done.

Then-boyfriend burst into the room to check what was going on, and I couldn't even move or stand up. What kind of person does this to themselves? How greedy am I? I'm human garbage. I couldn't meet his eyes. He caught sight of all the wrappers and boxes surrounding me, leaned down by my side and silently rubbed my back.

He was fantastic - didn't press me, didn't judge me. He then said softly that he'd listen if I wanted to talk, but I just couldn't… I could hardly breathe.

How I feel about make-up

My experience with cystic acne crops up several times in my book - it was so mentally (and, well, physically) scarring I just can't not bring it up, over and over again, like your friend who can't shut up about the ex she's still hung up on. People often ask me how I'm 'brave' enough to reveal my skin on screen. (The subtext there is how are you brave enough to show your imperfect skin on screen?) One word that nobody wants to hear in relation to them sharing their naked face is 'brave'.

It all began one morning when I was 23, as I munched on chocolate peanut-butter cups in the university library. I was working on an assignment but I was distracted by the big, painful blemish I'd dubbed 'Mount Doom' that had just come to a head on the edge of my top lip. I sat there staring blankly at my laptop screen. I was certain that everyone I'd spoken to had broken eye contact at least once to glance at Mount Doom, and some people just outright stared at it.

I was hoping to find an ocean of videos on YouTube to boost my confidence but I was surprised to discover that most of the make-up routines with 'acne' in the title on YouTube at the time, circa 2012, were uploaded by girls with picture-perfect skin - a grand total of two videos popped up from girls with active breakouts. But those videos were oh-so-comforting to me as these beautiful girls bared all on camera to millions of people, confidently and non-professionally applying make-up with instructions and close-ups. By the time they ended, the girls appeared completely transformed, yes - but what really struck me was they'd put it all out there, the 'flaws' - they'd shown the exact thing they were trying to hide.

My current view of make-up was born right there, that morning, mid-swallow of a peanut-butter cup in the library. I'd never been able to understand those women who get ready in front of their boyfriends. What's the point? a voice in my brain would whisper. After a house party in my early 20s, about 12 of us woke up hungover in a friend's dank living room and I'll never forget the image of my friend 'Jill' applying her make-up within eyeshot of her boyfriend, 'Tom', in the harsh light of midday.

I, on the other hand, used to set an alarm to wake myself up at the crack of dawn to quickly swipe a make-up wipe over my face and reapply my layers of foundation before my then-boyfriend woke up.

But here's the thing. Make-up isn't, or shouldn't be, about hiding anything. Rather, it's this wonderful, fun thing that allows us to enhance our features to look more like how we'd like them to, on any given day, for any given situation. It's a form of self-expression and, well, art!

My tips for a healthy mind in a world of modern media

1 Embrace digital media's existence because it isn't going anywhere! We can adapt and grow and learn and utilise or curl up in balls and forgo all the positive experiences the internet can bring.

2 Every Sunday I sit down with my notebook and my chewed-on, unsharpened pencil to schedule time for proper human experiences - or even Skype calls! Seeing and talking to family and friends regularly made my mental health go from about 10 to 80 on a scale of 0 to 100.

3 Diversify your YouTube subscription box and social media feeds. There are mountains of great content on all kinds of subjects from all kinds of ordinary human beings - not just from the human/goddess hybrids that much traditional media pits us up against.

4 Don't be a slave to the numbers. Worry less about how many likes your new sexy-but-also-cute-and-perfectly-cropped profile picture gathers from your 'friends'. Share for the sake of sharing and not for validation. Take back some of that power that you're giving to other people. You are not your social media presence. You'll feel so much better when you give less of a toss!

5 Have a bit of cop on when it comes to unfollowing and whatnot. It's all just common sense, what's worth our energy and what's not. Delete, unfollow, mute, report, block - never forget that these bad boys are options.

Media may have moulded me in the past, but now I mould my media. So consume wisely and don't forget to look at the sky sometimes. It's ever so pretty.

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